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As the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week mark the 61st anniversary of the first atomic bombings in human history, the world faces the likelihood of the further spread of nuclear weapons. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki, three days later, caused the immediate deaths of about 140,000 and 74,000 people, respectively.

These events were not just tragic episodes in the closing days of World War II; the killing and injuring of hundreds of thousands of people also heralded the advent of an age in which the annihilation of countries and civilizations by nuclear weapons has become a possible reality.

A report by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, an independent panel of international experts funded by the Swedish government and headed by former United Nations chief weapons inspector Mr. Hans Blix, offers a bleak picture. Humankind has accumulated some 27,000 nuclear weapons, with more than 12,000 of them deployed. These figures are “extraordinary and alarmingly high” in themselves, yet the “existing nuclear powers” — the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain — continue modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

Under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which nearly 190 states are parties, these five states are supposed to take initiatives toward cutting their nuclear arsenals and to refrain from developing new nuclear weapons. But the world still waits to see such moves.

India, Pakistan and Israel, which have remained outside the NPT regime, are considered “gray” states in possession of nuclear arsenals. In addition, suspicion is mounting that North Korea and Iran are pushing programs to produce nuclear weapons. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, aimed at prohibiting all nuclear-test explosions, has not yet entered into force due to inaction or refusal by several states. For the treaty to go into effect, ratification by 44 named states is necessary. India, Pakistan and North Korea have not signed the treaty, while eight other states, including the U.S., China, Iran and Israel, have signed but not ratified the treaty.

Last September a clue to breaking the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear development appeared to emerge when North Korea and five other nations issued a joint statement in Beijing: The North pledged to abandon its nuclear programs and return at an early date to the NPT and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards while the U.S. asserted that it had no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and no intention of attacking or invading North Korea with either nuclear or conventional weapons. Yet North Korea has refused to resume the six-nation talks since November, citing the U.S.-imposed financial sanctions against it.

To make matters worse, North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 5. The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the North’s missile tests and urging it to return to the six-nation talks without preconditions. The missile launches prompted several Japanese politicians to talk about whether Japan should consider arming itself with the capability to carry out a preemptive attack on an enemy missile base. Some foreign media took these thoughtless and shortsighted remarks as an indication of Japan’s desire to possess nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the international community’s suspicion of Iran’s nuclear-related activities is so strong that the Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing by Aug. 31 or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Both North Korea and Iran have rejected the resolutions directed at them, but they should act quickly to clear away the clouds of suspicions about their activities.

In March the U.S. and India signed an agreement in which the U.S. will provide civilian nuclear-energy technologies and fuel to India. Although India has agreed to declare 14 of its 22 reactors as commercial facilities and to open them up to international inspectors, the deal is likely to undermine the basic NPT tenet, which entitles all member states, other than the five recognized nuclear-weapons states, to the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes if they give up the right to possess nuclear weapons. Other countries might cite the U.S.-India deal as an excuse for pursuing the development of nuclear weapons as well as commercial nuclear-power generation.

As momentum appears to favor further growth of the nuclear-weapons club, members have a heavy responsibility to spearhead efforts to halt it, especially by reducing their own arsenals. Japan must renew its resolve to play a unique and leading role in pushing for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

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